Last December I was invited to Harvard to participate in a round table on ISIS and iconoclasm. The event, organized by archaeologist Bastien Varoutsikos and sponsored by Harvard’s Standing Committee on Archaeology, sparked a fascinating discussion of iconoclasm through the ages, putting the destructive impulse of the Islamic State into a context that I, for one, had been missing.
The speakers included Harvard’s James Simpson, author of Under the Hammer: Iconoclasm in the Anglo-American Tradition, who offered a reminder that iconoclasm is a central strand in Western history. “This is not the other,” Simpson said. “This is us, we’ve been here.” Peter Der Manuelian, director of Harvard’s Semitic Museum, discussed iconoclasm in ancient Egypt and how 3D technology was allowing us to recreate the destroyed past. Joseph Greene, also at the Semitic Museum, surveyed the destruction of museums – repositories of cultural icons – across Syria and Iraq. And Matthew Liebmann reviewed the smashing of church bells – icons of Spanish colonization – during the Pueblo Revolts of 17th Century New Mexico. Moderating with Bastien was Clare Gillis, whose intrepid reporting on the ground in the region with her friend James Foley is captured in the must-watch documentary about his life and death, Jim.
My contribution to the panel was “ISIS and the Media: Iconoclasm in the Era of Clickbait,” a review of how the media has covered the iconoclasm of ISIS. In short, I argued that ISIS iconoclasm was largely (not exclusively) a propaganda effort, and that many of us in the media and social media became complicit in their crimes by spreading those images as clickbait.
With the fall of Palmyra to Assad forces this month, Bastien and I decided to revisit the subject in an essay for this week’s The Art Newspaper. What follows are excerpts of that essay with a few slides from my Harvard presentation.
The early assessments [of damage by ISIS] contain several important lessons for those of us who watched the destruction of Palmyra in horror last summer—and then shared it virally on social media.
First, they lend credibility to on-the-ground reports during the city’s harrowing occupation that the Islamic State’s destruction of historical monuments was motivated less by twisted ideology than a far simpler craving for attention.
“In-country sources… have overheard Isil commanders comment that attacking the ancient monuments ‘makes the whole world’ talk about them,” noted a September report fr om the American Schools for Oriental Research, an archaeological group tasked by the US State Department with monitoring heritage destruction in Syria and Iraq.
Notably, the destruction of historical sites had started months earlier, after international media outlets had collectively decided to stop broadcasting gruesome images of Isil hostage beheadings.
If media attention was indeed what Isil had wanted, the destruction of Palmyra was a coup.
Respected international media outlets republished Isil’s carefully choreographed shots of the detonation of the iconic Baalshamin Temple on social media as if they were news photos, not the propaganda of a terrorist regime.
In Palmyra, we first witnessed the collision of iconoclasm and clickbait.
Increasingly, modern media is funded by clickbait and the advertising revenue it generates.
This fact was not lost on Isil, whose sophisticated propaganda machine has created pre-packaged viral content—slick YouTube videos, Facebook posts and 140 character Tweets—designed to be spread on the web.
It is Isil’s ability to marry ancient iconoclasm with modern clickbait that has spread their appetite for destruction so far and fast. And it is our fascination with sharing their snuff films on social media that make us complicit in their crimes.
You can read the complete essay here. My thanks to Bastien for his help with it.